Black Coal Thin Ice 001

“Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a 2014 film from Chinese director Diao Yinan, is a dark and thrilling mystery. The story follows the investigation of a series of murders by two former police partners in Heilongjiang province, in northeastern China. While at times the plot can feel oblique and inaccessible, the cinematography and style of the film help salvage this weaving story.

The investigation by Detective Zhang Zili (played by Liao Fan) with the help of his ex-partner, leads down dark roads and even darker pasts. The two men come into contact with first murdered man’s lovely but secretive widow Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei Gwei), a worker at a dry-cleaner’s.

The title in Chinese is “Bai Ri Yan Huo,” or “Daytime Fireworks”, and the joyfulness of fireworks is certainly distinct from the rest of movie. The film revolves around the digging of the alcoholic, former police officer Zhang into a case concerning the remains of three different workers in a local coal plant, all dismembered and found in similar circumstances that span several years. The disjointedness (no pun intended) of the murders, and yet their eerie similarity early on in the story set the tone for the pacing and focus of the film.

The setting of the movie is in many ways an added character, with the very industrial and urban cityscapes forming both a backdrop and an impetus for brutality. There is very little glitz or glamor to the area, or to the movie. Long shots of smoky work yards and snowy city streets add to the weariness of the characters themselves and beg patience from the viewer. Even the title referencing the coal and factories processing it, where the discovery of body parts are found in a host of different factories across the region, holds a rough shadow over the movie.

The movie, while very much in the style of film noir, with a shadowy and cynical attitude, is also at times irreverent and silly. One scene depicts the bitter and sad detective dancing goofily to music in a dance hall. This scene, among a few others, adds a bit of levity to an otherwise intense and moody film. Also in line with the themes of film noir are the scenes at times charged with sexual tension or sexual motivations surrounding characters’ actions.

Even in its darkness, the movie is beautifully shot, with a grace in capturing imagery of the countryside to the heart of developed towns and mines. The characters seem to be embodiments of the frustrating and desolate environment, with little hope or joy to be found.

The film is not for the faint of heart. Scenes of body part discovery and murder are blunt and bleak. Furthermore, they often come out of nowhere in a raw and unexpected way. The depictions of violence bring to mind Tarantino, with less of a comical nature. These scenes feed into the abnormality of the crimes but also underscore the tension built up over the course of the movie.

At its heart, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is a crime drama, painting a solemn but fascinating portrait of Heilongjiang province and the ways in which creepy crimes can affect people and a community. It’s worth a watch if you’re at all interested in China or love a crime drama. From start to finish, the film might not be the happiest or lightest story, but the viewer is compelled to keep looking for clues and meaning much in the way that the detectives themselves hunt down the truth. The film earns three stars out of four from this reviewer.  ★ ★ ★ ☆

(Written by Ben Turner; edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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